The SEC is far from the best conference in college basketball, but it may have the best team.
After missing the NCAA tournament last season, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats have reloaded to make themselves a consensus top-five team, and even the No. 1 team according to many media outlets.
Aside from Kentucky, the only other potential top-25 teams in the league are Florida and Tennessee, who could challenge the Wildcats for the crown but will most likely end up in second and third place.
Kentucky was extremely disappointing last season, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to imagine this team not winning the SEC. The Wildcats bring in the best freshmen class in the nation, and they also return forwards Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Though only sophomores, Poythress and Cauley-Stein will serve as veterans on this young squad. Last season, Poythress averaged 11.2 points and six rebounds while shooting 58.1% from the field, and Cauley-Stein added 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 62.1% from the field.
Among Kentucky’s lauded freshmen, the four to keep an eye on are Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew Harrison, and Aaron Harrison. Randle is one of the best post players in college basketball this season. As a high school senior, he dominated with 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds per game.
Young, though he may come off the bench, could be Kentucky’s best scorer. He averaged 27.2 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 5.7 assists as a high school senior and has been impressing NBA scouts during preseason workouts.
Florida is the only SEC team that is even close to Kentucky’s level. The Gators return a pair of starters in Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin, and reserves Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and Michael Frazier II are all back as well.
Young was a dominant post presence in the SEC last season averaging 10.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. Prather, Yeguete, and Virginia Tech Dorian Finney-Smith will join him in the frontcourt. Yeguete is coming off a great junior season where he averaged 5.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. Finney-Smith should have an immediate impact for the Gators. As a Hokie, he averaged 6.3 points and seven rebounds.
Wilbekin will be arguably the SEC’s best point guard. Last season, he averaged 9.2 points, five assists, and 1.5 steals. Frazier, who averaged 5.6 points and shot 46.8% from beyond the arc, will join him in the backcourt.
The Gators also add freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who was a McDonald’s All-American and a Jordan Brand Classic participant.
One area where Florida easily trumps Kentucky is experience. Young, Wilbekin, Prather, and Yeguete are all seniors.
Tennessee is a borderline top 25 team this season with three of its top four scorers returning, plus the additions of Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton. Maymon, a redshirt senior, missed last season with an injury but averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in 2011-12. Barton, a Memphis transfer who averaged 5.6 points last season, should start in the Volunteers’ backcourt.
Among the Volunteers’ notable returners are Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, and Josh Richardson. McRae is coming off a breakout junior season where he led the team with 15.7 points per game. The 6’6″ wing had six games with more than 25 points.
Stokes, Maymon’s partner in crime in the frontcourt, averaged 12.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks last season.
Richardson will play alongside Barton and McRae in the Tennessee backcourt. Last season, he averaged 7.9 points and 4.3 rebounds.
LSU will be in contention for a NCAA tournament in 2014 with four starters returning.
In the frontcourt, the Tigers return Johnny O’Bryant III and Shavon Coleman. O’Bryant, a 6’9″ junior and the team’s best player, averaged 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds while Coleman averaged 10.5 points and 5.9 rebounds.
At guard, LSU returns Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer. Hickey posted 11.2 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.9 steals per game last season while Stringer averaged 10.4 points and 2.1 assists and shot 40.9% from beyond the arc.
Missouri returns two talented guards in Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. Brown, a former Oregon transfer, averaged 13.7 points and shot 36.6% on three-pointers while Ross averaged 10.3 points and shot 37.7% from beyond the arc.
Once again Frank Haith reloaded with a high-quality transfer. Jordan Clarkson, who played two seasons at Tulsa, averaged 16.5 points and made 43 treys for the Golden Hurricane in 2011-12. He should start with Brown and Ross in the backcourt.
The Tigers’ biggest hole is at point guard, where a freshman, either Shane Rector or Wes Clark, will start, but their frontcourt is also thin. Redshirt senior Tony Criswell (5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is Missouri’s only notable forward.
Alabama returns a great scorer in senior Trevor Lacey, who averaged 14.9 points and 2.1 steals last season and shot better than 40% on three-pointers, but the Crimson Tide does not have enough surrounding him to compete for a top-four spot in the SEC.
A lot will fall on the shoulders of juniors Rodney Cooper (10.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Nick Jacobs (7.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg).
7. Texas A&M
Texas A&M could finish as high as fifth with the return of three starters and backup point guard Alex Caruso. The Aggies return sharpshooting guard Fabyon Harris, the team’s top returning scorer with 12 points per game, to join the sophomore Caruso, who averaged 5.5 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 steals as a freshman.
The Aggies also return a solid big man in Kourtney Roberson, who averaged 6.9 points and 6.6 rebounds last season.
8. Ole Miss
Ole Miss will certainly make headlines with Marshall Henderson once again on the roster, but will the Rebels be able to compete with teams at the top of the SEC?
Aside from Henderson, who averaged 20.1 points per game and made 138 three-pointers last season, return point guard Jarvis Summers (9.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) and LaDarius White (6.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg) in the backcourt.
9. South Carolina
South Carolina is still a year or two away from being successful under Frank Martin. The Gamecocks should still manage to finish in the SEC’s top 10 with three starters returning and a top-100 recruit joining the fold.
The Gamecocks return guards Brenton Williams (11.0 ppg, 39.7 3P%) and Bruce Ellington (9.9 ppg, 2.7 apg), and they will be joined by freshman shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was ranked the No. 41 recruit in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.
At forward, South Carolina returns sophomores Michael Carrera (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Laimonas Chatkevicius (4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg).
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left early for the NBA, delivering Georgia a big blow, but the Bulldogs will not fall all the way down the SEC ranks with their three best players aside from Caldwell-Pope returning.
The Bulldogs should not have to worry about falling any lower than 12th place with Nemanja Djurisic (7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Charles Mann (6.7 ppg, 2.9 apg), and Donte’ Williams (5.1 ppg, 4.8, 1.2 bpg) back for the 2013-14 season.
Arkansas will struggle after losing BJ Young and Marshawn Powell at the conclusion of last season. The Razorbacks best returning players are Coty Clarke (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Mardracus Wade (6.5 ppg), neither of whom have the ability to carry a team to many SEC victories.
12. Mississippi State
Mississippi State was one of the worst BCS teams in college basketball last season with a 10-22 record, but the Bulldogs will be much-improved this season with everyone returning for one more season together.
Senior Colin Borchert (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.2 bpg) and sophomores Craig Sword (10.5 ppg, 2.3 apg, 1.7 spg), Fred Thomas (9.7 ppg, 1.8 spg), and Roquez Johnson (8.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) could lead the Bulldogs to a few upsets this year.
Vanderbilt initially looked like a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC, but Kedren Johnson, Kevin Bright, and Sheldon Jeter all left the program during the offseason.
The Commodores still have a few talented players, like Rod Odom (10.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Kyle Fuller (8.7 ppg, 2.0 apg), and Dai-Jon Parker (7.2 ppg, 2.4 apg), but they will not have the depth to climb any higher than 12th place.
Auburn is simply in sorry shape for the 2013-14 season. The Tigers, who already struggled last season with a 9-23 record and only three SEC wins, return only two of their top eight scorers: Chris Denson (11.9 ppg) and Allen Payne (7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 spg).
The Tigers also add Virginia transfer KT Harrell, who averaged eight points for the Cavaliers as a freshman.
SEC Player of the Year
Julius Randle, Kentucky
SEC Defensive Player of the Year
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
SEC Freshman of the Year
Julius Randle, Kentucky
SEC All-Conference Team
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky